School nurses have given our all over the past 24-plus months to keep our students and staff safe. We have worked endless days, nights, weekends, and holidays to contact trace close contacts of positive students and school staff. We have taken on an additional full-time job as the de facto health department because our national public health infrastructure could not support the deluge of cases.
Throughout the pandemic, school nurses have been on the frontline of COVID at school. We have been questioned, doubted, harassed, intimated, and bullied. Remember the student who was sent home for COVID-like illness, only to return to school wearing a t-shirt that said “My school nurse has sh*t for brains, I don’t have COVID.” This is only one example of the incivility that we have endured for far too long.
In recent weeks, as mask mandates have been dropped, there has been a push in districts across the country to silence school nurses. One of the most egregious examples, of which I have first-hand knowledge, is a district that revoked the school nurses’ privileges to access the COVID dashboard. They are no longer allowed to add cases and the current case count is listed as zero. Students are no longer being sent home for COVID-like illness without administrative approval and are allowed to return after 24 hours. There is no more contact tracing, quarantining, masking, or testing happening in too many school districts to count. It’s as if COVID has magically disappeared. But, it has not, and will come back with a vengeance. Will we be prepared to pivot?
School nurses should not have to whisper that cases are rising, but we do. We are speaking to each other because others refuse to listen or worse, believe us. The moral injury that has been inflicted on us is rampant and I am not sure how we will heal from what has happened, and continues to occur even as I write this blog post.
In the hundreds of hours of support groups that I have hosted since the beginning of the pandemic, I have heard from school nurses across the country who share their first-hand accounts of pandemic school nursing. It is almost too painful to look at the collective trauma for some because we are still living it day by day. This school year, by far, has been the most difficult because of the politicization of simple safety precautions like universal masking. Caring for others by asking to protect our most vulnerable has become a flashpoint that has been misinterpreted as a violation of personal freedom. The divisive environment that has been perpetuated by the rise of malignant narcissism has invaded school nurses’ offices and left a deep wound that remains open and raw.
What I know for sure is that school nurses will not be silenced. We are developing a resolve to no longer tolerate these intolerable conditions. COVID has taught us much about our strength, our ability to organize, owning our public health expertise, and supporting each other through impossible conditions. We care for other people’s children and will do whatever it takes to keep our school communities safe. Yes, some of us will leave, because our mental health is as important as yours. Some of us will retire, earlier than we had planned. I may be one of those school nurses and am still weighing my options, much to my husband’s chagrin. He begs me to retire every single day. I do not believe my work is done, that is what keeps me going, but like many of my colleagues, I am tired and struggling. Spring break is far too late this school year and it will only be a brief reprieve from what may come next if the BA.2 variant comes roaring into school.
If you engage with a school nurse, be kind. I sometimes wonder if people remember how to be kind. Please prove me wrong…